Book Reviews: Fall 2021

By: Anna Faktorovich

“There Is Nobody Capable of Understanding You”

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Fifty Letters of a Roman Stoic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, December 7, 2021). Softcover: $16. 308pp. ISBN: 978-0-226-78293-5.


The publisher describes this book thus: “A selection of Seneca’s most significant letters that illuminate his philosophical and personal life. ‘There is only one course of action that can make you happy… rejoice in what is yours. What is it that is yours? Yourself; the best part of you.’ In the year 62, citing health issues, the Roman philosopher Seneca withdrew from public service and devoted his time to writing. His letters from this period offer a window onto his experience as a landowner, a traveler, and a man coping with the onset of old age. They share his ideas on everything from the treatment of enslaved people to the perils of seafaring, and they provide lucid explanations for many key points of Stoic philosophy.”

The “Preface” explains that this is an abridged edition of the longer complete edition of all Seneca letters released back in 2015. Margaret Graver and A. A. Long’s “Introduction” explains that these letters were written in Seneca’s final three years, so they cover “small but significant” events in his life as opposed to his tutoring of Nero, or professional political speechwriting. Given the size of this long introduction, it is unclear why a brief biography of Seneca was not included to ground the general audience in some context. Instead, most of this introduction is digressive as it casually mentions various philosophical points without focusing on the main philosophical teachings or the definitions of the central terms that are mentioned across these letters. Points that are uniquely important in this introduction are not highlighted with clear headings; for example, there is a paragraph that explains Seneca only occasionally cites the names of his sources (such as letters from Epicurus to him), but more frequently includes ideas claimed to be by other scholars without their specific names being mentioned (xxvi). This is especially important for my current research because I came across similar mixed citation and non-citation practices in the British Renaissance, and they were probably imitating Greco-Roman scholars such as Seneca in choosing this inconsistent citation style.

Reading the letters themselves is very calming and enjoyable for any intellectual who should find most ideas agreeable even with a couple of millennia between us. In “A Beneficial Reading Program” (to Lucilius) Seneca makes the controversial argument that staying with a “limited number of writers” is better than fluttering across most available books. Seneca begins the letter by congratulating Lucilius on finally settling in a single physical place, which Seneca believes will lead to a “settled mind”. I can relate to this as four years ago I purchased a tiny house in Quanah and have lived in it across this stretch; this is a long time for me to be in any one place; In fact, the longest stretch I have ever spent in any single place before since moving to the US was in Framingham, MA for 3 years during high school. I have also spent the last couple of years focusing primarily on the study of the British Renaissance to write the first 14 published and around 14 more forthcoming volumes. While I have been researching all sorts of books and authors for this series, focusing on this century in literature has helped me to find truths about it and its authors that would have escaped any briefer and less focused study. Seneca uses several examples to prove this point. Many of these seem to be proverbs, such as: “Nothing impedes healing as much as frequent change of medications.” He concludes with the point, “A large number of books puts a strain on a person” (4-5). This made me giggle as I contemplate this set of reviews I am undertaking, which is smaller than the stacks of books I was reviewing pre-pandemic, but is still perhaps more than any one person can handle. Seneca then corrects his broad assertion by pointing out that variety in reading is also necessary to address the different needs and interests that emerge. It is rare, in our modern world, for any scholar to embrace contradictions and multiple viewpoints in this manner.

Another letter that grasps my attention is “Avoiding the crowd” (also to Lucilius): “I become more cruel and inhumane, just because I have been among humans.” Again, I find myself on the same frequency with Seneca at this moment, as I am also in a (at least temporary) retirement from the “crowd”, and find the claim that interaction with others can be the source of evil, instead of being the good that most psychiatrists claim it is. Seneca uses the examples of the slaughter of gladiators to explain this concept. Then, he adds the more significant for himself dimension of a scholar/politician who fights in arguments to be “different”, as “we who are just now beginning to establish inner harmony cannot possibly withstand the attack of faults that bring to so much company along… What do you suppose happens to the character what is under attack by the public at large? You must either imitate them or detest them.” This also uniquely relates to my current predicament, as I have been working to present to the public my conclusion that the Renaissance was the work of six ghostwriters, and I have been facing attacks form the “crowd” of insiders who are violently against this change in British history. Seneca explains: “Both are to be avoided: you should not imitate those who are bad because they are many, and neither should you become hateful to the many because they are unlike you. Retreat into yourself, then, as much as you can. Spend your time with those who will improve you; extend a welcome to those you can improve.” If only there was a platform where teachers and students seeking such higher knowledge could meet for improvement, instead of our current social media platforms where folks seem to meet for the spread of anti-knowledge, hatred and repetition. Seneca adds that attempts to “display… talent” to the public in “debate” can fail if the intellectual “merchandise” is not “suitable for this populace; as it is, there is nobody capable of understanding you. Perhaps somebody or other will show up, and even that one will need to be instructed, to teach him how to understand you.” This is a great point, as one objection I received in a LibraryThing chat earlier today, in response to my research, was that the complexity of my explanations makes them difficult to be grasped by the public. If Seneca came across this problem of the populace not understanding him either, I am surely on the right path (10-13). 

As with any useful textbook or an instructive professor, there are lessons in these letters that should be similarly useful for various readers who are in need of rational, stoic logic and good sense. This book is designed for the general public, or rather for the members of the public who have reached a similar point of scholarly study when looking inward and inside of books is far more pleasurable than look outwards at the opinions of the crowd.

On Acting/Directing During a Pandemic, and Various Scholarly Digressions

Stephanie Chamberlain, Editor, Journal of the Wooden O: Volume 20 (Cedar City: Southern Utah University Press, 2020). Softcover. 150pp. ISSN: 1539-5758.


“It is published annually by Southern Utah University Press in cooperation with the Gerald R. Sherratt Library and the Utah Shakespeare Festival.” It “publishes papers on any topic related to Shakespeare including Shakespearean texts, Shakespeare in performance, the adaptation of Shakespeare’s works (film, fiction, and visual and performing arts), early modern English culture and history, and Shakespeare’s contemporaries.”

I have requested a few journals in the field of British Renaissance studies, and the is one of the few for which I have received review copies. This is a pretty thin volume in its page-count, and the pages are under the standard 6X9” in size. Most of the articles are around ten pages in this small format, so these essays cover the surface of these issues, rather than being full explorations. The small word-count maximum for essays is standard in Renaissance studies journals, in contrast with the unique complexity of these texts that really should necessitate far longer scholarly explanations.

Most of the articles in this Volume 20 have the canonical “Shakespeare” plays, such as Lear, in their titles. Most of them also compare “Shakespeare” plays to each other, or against their sources such as Ovid. Only one of these articles stands out as new research of relevance, or the article on performing “Shakespeare” by actors during the Covid-19 pandemic by Michael Don Bahr. Most of the other articles are digressions into irrelevant philosophical double-speak such as “gaps on memory” and “conjuring empathy”. The article that stands out as curious is “Feminine Veneration Over Patriarchal Domination: Reading Ecology in The Winter’s Tale” by Kaitlyn Reid because I have been pondering as well what the difference is between “Shakespearean” narratives that are overtly or subvertly sexist and if there are any that are not sexist at all. According to my Re-Attribution study, Winter was ghostwritten by Jonson (the leading comedian under this byline). Reid opens her essay by explaining that while this play is usually classified as a “comedy”, it is really a “late” romance. Reid points out that the strangely happy ending in this play is difficult to “attribute to the” same “mind that… dramatized the baking of young Goths into pies in Titus”; my study re-attributes Titus to Percy, thus explaining that this different taste in violence/comedy is indeed due to different minds being at work on these plays. Despite this curious start, Reid then takes a sharp and confusing turn when she explains what her thesis is for this article. She is not going to argue directly if this play is sexist or not, but instead is going to argue that the play’s argument is against “man’s domination of his environment; the dominator is said to be Leontes, while the “veneration” comes from Perdita. The essay then explains how this play reinforces the sexist status-quo of male dominance over the domain/kingdom, and female subjugation and veneration. But this reinforcement of the oldest of ideas is disguised behind the concept of “ecofeminism” or terminology about the importance of the “land”, or being in harmony or conflict with nature. This is all double-speak that turns away from examining the realities of the content in this play and focuses instead of repeating philosophical concepts that are commonly discussed in digressive literary criticism. The conclusion claims that, through the “ecofeminist lens”, the conclusion of this play proves that women are “closest to Nature”, and thus they are protective of nature, and that thus this play shows respect for women in general in society. The tragic ending is read as a “cautionary tale” of a lack of respect for nature/women (69-79). This conclusion is a great example of what is wrong with modern literary analysis. The play itself does not describe Nature or comment on nature or on the preservation of nature any more than any other play from this period; there was no environmental movement back then that argued against the domination of nature because Nature was very much winning as humans were barely able to tame it in small chunks of land in cities. Critics are just focused on combining different theories such as feminism and ecological preservation to make very old repetitive ideas seem new by this process of their combination. By closely studying “Shakespeare’s” plays, I have found many elements that have never been explored by scholars before. Instead of searching for these real historical, biographical and socially revealing elements the favored type of scholarship in this field are these re-combinations of different fields of study that are applied in turn to the same mainstream canons, using the same famous lines, and the same critical interpretations of the main plots. Essays that depart from these repetitions and provide truly innovative research are rejected because they are unlike the “style” or the “typical” essays a given journal publishes.

The one article that stands out in this volume about Covid separates from the theory + play formula in the others by doing a set of interviews with actual actors that have been trying to make a living in this pandemic. They are interviewed by Michael Don Bahr, USF Education Director, who explains in the introduction that these interviews were part of their Symposium. After the introductions (necessary since the participants biographies are not included elsewhere), these actors dive into the specific problems they have faced as their companies moved “completely to online” platforms, and otherwise were restricted by social-distancing rules (103). Mugavero explains that “all over the country theaters are making huge, huge cuts to their staff”, and he was one of those “furloughed indefinitely” at his theater. Mattfield echoed a similar experience of a sudden and complete shut-down that has left him “looking for copyrighting work and writing work” (104). Mugavero than summarized his experience with experimenting with Zoom or other online performances, for which he basically had to start his own troupe. The rest of the interview addresses many other practical challenges and successes this group of directors/actors had during the pandemic. I would recommend folks interested in current theater production to read this article to understand these issues from first-hand accounts.

Overall, there are sparks of useful information in this issue of The Wooden O, but there is also an overwhelming amount of scholarly double-speak that repeats old ideas without taking any steps forward or in the direction where all research has to go to be presented in scholarly platforms. I do not think libraries should blindly subscribe to established journals like this one, while ignoring new independently published journals like this journal in which I am writing now. But it is certainly important to have journals out there that specialize in “Shakespeare” with over 4 billion “Shakespeare” books in circulation.

The Vibrant Photographic History of the Civil War Battle of Port Hudson

Lawrence Lee Hewitt, Port Hudson: The Most Significant Battlefield Photographs of the Civil War (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Hardcover. 352pp. B&W photographs. ISBN: 978-1-62190-483-0.


“In 1978, Lawrence Lee Hewitt became the first manager of the Port Hudson State Historic Site. There, he began collecting photographs related to the Civil War battle… Together the six cameramen claimed many ‘firsts,’ including the first-ever photograph of soldiers engaged in battle, first exterior shots at night, and first ‘composition print.’ The collection—arranged chronologically—allows readers to follow the changes in the landscape during and after the siege… A cotton gin, a grist mill, and a Methodist church—all showing signs of damage—caught the eyes of photographers. At the request of a Union soldier’s mother, there was a photograph taken of his burial site. There is even the only known photograph of a Confederate army surrendering. Biographies of the photographers and the captions in this volume also brim with fresh information about both the photographs and the campaign…” Port Hudson is acknowledged as a smaller battle than “Gettysburg or Vicksburg”, but it is one that is preserved in unique detail in this collection to assist with the larger question of “the Civil War’s photographic record.” Hewitt “was professor of history at Southeastern Louisiana University”, who published broadly on related subjects.

Hewitt writes in first-person in the “Preface” about the start of his affiliation with the Historic Site in 1978. He explains that as the first manager, he was initially tasked with a seemingly simple task of determining the “type and caliber of cannon” used in this conflict, but that this task actually proved to be “formidable and near endless”. The problem was the existence of only a single book on this battle that did not address this particular issue. The research led Hewitt to an interest in studying photographs of the battle, and he gradually researched more and more about them until he came up with this book (xv-xvii). He explains how after publishing his dissertation, he tried to find a publisher for the early stages of this book or a collection of the Port’s photographs, but he faced rejection. Hewitt also goes into unusual details in explaining that institutions demanded “prohibitive reproduction fees” of over $10,000 due to hidden fees in reproduction contracts (xxv). Hewitt describes how after failing to find a publisher between 1987, he finally found one in 2015 in the editor who had worked with him on several of his earlier books that more traditionally fit in scholarly publishing (xxxiii). I have not seen this type of honest prefacing commentary on how a book came together in other photography or scholarly books, so I appreciate these insights here.

Then come the introductions to the methodology and style of Civil War photography more broadly, a detailed historical introduction the Port Hudson, Louisiana and its significance, and the biographies of the central figures relevant to the photographs. While these are obvious pieces essential for a book like this one, it is rare to see such detailed background information in a book primarily dedicated to photography; this combination of the genres of history and photography is likely to be the primary reason most publishers rejected this project; but obviously these two fields have to be combined for either of them to make sense in the context of documenting and explaining history with visual assistance.

  One element that I would recommend be edited in future editions is that most of the photographs are not presented at maximum size or in a size that takes up a whole page. For example, the first image, Fig. 1 is of tents in Major General Nathaniel Bank’s Headquarters; it takes up only around a fourth of the page. There are many details in this image that are likely to have been enhanced if the size was maximized as there seem to be horses and people in the image that are too tiny here to be distinguished. Also the image editor should have increased the contrast on this and other images to make the details stand out (27). The pages of this book are of artwork-thickness-and-gloss as they are intended for image reproduction, so it would have been reasonable to maximize this by including larger images. Fig. 2 is one of the largest in the book, but it has 1” margins on all sides; it would have been a good idea to use bleed or to expand images out to the edges of the pages in this book without any margins for images (28). While Fig. 2 seems to have been shrunk to allow for standard margins, this idea is contradicted by Fig. 7 that is designed for bleed or takes up the entire width of page 36. There is more resolution and details of people in this highly-contrasted Fig. 7 so this was probably why it was enlarged while Fig. 2 was shrunk. But there might be significant information in Fig. 2 that would only become visible with enlargement, and there was plenty of white space on that page for this.

Overall, the details in these photographs should be very useful to those making films about the Civil War, especially given the explanations of what is portrayed in them in the notes that accompany each image in this book. The photographs record the stages of construction of reinforcing walls, trenches and the like out of the simple tents that were placed at this location at the onset. There are also stages where blown-up pieces of wood after a fight or fallen trees in the surrounding region speak for the carnage or violent bombings and fire this location took before these silent moments when photographers could enter the theater to take pictures (174).

 The first image with well-dressed people in power I noticed is Fig. 130 (from 1864 or after the main church in this area was bombed) of the Headquarters of Brigadier General George L. Andrews, as most of the other images are of common soldiers preparing for warfare in loose and rugged outfits including overalls and baggy pants (35). An African American woman and then a group of African American men begin to appear in images such as Fig. 135 of the “First Schoolhouse Built for the Instruction of Freedmen” (246). These African American men are dressed in holiday-best military outfits, unlike the slack outfits worn by white military workers in earlier images. These are followed by professional photographs of individual white military leaders in elegant outfits designed to highlight their power and prestige, as in Fig. 140 of Brigadier General George Leonard Andrews (253). Later images also include complex housing structures, details about residential life, and even more complex tents. There are also some close-up photos of “unknown” soldiers (Fig. 169) (300), and a final image of the camp in 1864.

While most students of American history imagine that the narratives in the history books are absolute truths, there is actually more propaganda or fiction in history than is appropriate for us to learn from past mistakes. This is why evidence of what really happened from photographs is essential for double-checking historical narratives (whenever these are available). This is one of the many reasons there is a great need for this particular book and books like it. Scholarship is best when it includes not only a clear narrative explanation but also documentary evidence to substantiate it, and this is what this book delivers.    

A Mad Gallop Through History-Adjacent Anecdotes on Downfalls from Assumption

John Molesworth, A History of Dangerous Assumptions (London: Unicorn Publishing Group, October 2021). Hardcover: £20. 240pp. ISBN: 978-1-91349-189-5.


“A… historical exploration of the general vulnerability of the human mind to assumption. The act of assuming—of jumping to conclusions, of lacking sufficient evidence, of taking things for granted—seems to have caused many problems for human civilization.” It presents “more than two hundred intriguing case studies on the subject of assumption, including some of the most disastrous ever foisted on the human race. Spanning ancient Greece to the present day… From Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps to Bonaparte’s march on Moscow; from the hubris of Icarus and Phaeton to the toppling towers of the Tay Bridge; from the maddening phantoms of a Northwest Passage to the sinking of the Titanic; from the Schlieffen Plan of World War I to the approach to the D-Day invasion; from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Sherlock Holmes, here lies a highly contrasted trove of stories, episodes, and anecdotes, all with the common link of the mysterious mischief of assumption.”

The brevity of the introductory remarks explain that this book is designed to be entertaining and informative, as opposed to a scholarly exercise in digression on a philosophical concept. The brief introductory comments to Part One explain concepts from Ancient Greece relevant to assumption such as “hubris”. Then, examples of hubris’ victims are given from mythology such as Icarus. A brief summary of the myth is followed by an explanation of hubris and assumption behind this fictitious incident and what it was meant to teach the public (13-4). The history of human civilization is then compressed into these brief stories with explanation on how assumption led to downfall in different circumstances. I was captivated by the section title “A Flat Earth?”; it explains how by some of the earliest published texts in the west in the sixth century BC, societies already “accepted that the earth was, like the sun and moon, globular” (20). Thus, flat-earthers today are sending human knowledge back to pre-written-word-days. Then, I stopped at the Renaissance section that explains “Richard III and Henry VII: History Written by the Victor”, or in other words, Richard III’s assumed murder of his nephews was a slander that appears to have been written about him by the following King Henry VII after the latter’s victory; no evidence has been presented to support this assertion, but it has been assumed to be true since there is also no evidence to the contrary and Richard III was not alive to offer an alternative narrative. Then, a few sections about “Shakespeare” follow in which I see assumptions on top of the assumptions Molesworth sees in them due to my findings about attribution of texts from the Renaissance. For example, Molesworth writes about “Shakespeare’s” Macbeth being the result of his reading of “James’s books, including the ones about demons and witchcraft”; my findings explain that these books were ghostwritten for James by the Workshop; for example, Demonology (1597) was ghostwritten by Verstegan; Verstegan taught younger members of the Workshop such as Percy as he shared these books and other research into witchcraft; there are elements in Macbeth’s witch-scenes that echo across several other of Percy’s pseudonyms. By assuming James wrote his own anti-witchcraft book Molesworth is giving power to James in having power over “Shakespeare’s” content, instead of seeing that the Workshop had power over what James said in print because they were his voice (33).

Reading a few of these stories is amusing, but after a few of these anecdotes, this whole book just becomes tedious, overwhelming and too poorly researched to be of interest to scholars. If I had purchased this book to read for fun, I would have been disappointed with the author being too self-important and too involved at laughing at his own jokes. And if I had purchased this book to use it in my scholarship that was about historical assumptions, I would have been frustrated with the lack of citations for the history being summarized. There are likely to be many historical errors in this loose, compressed set of mini-stories. Thus, I do not recommend this book for anybody, but it was also not a horrid read until I just couldn’t continue.

Double-Speak Confession About the Chaos of Playgoing in Elizabethan England

William N. West, Common Understandings, Poetic Confusion: Playhouses & Playgoers in Elizabethan England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021). Softcover. 326pp. ISBN: 978-0-226-80903-8.


“A new account of playgoing in Elizabethan England, in which audiences participated as much as performers. What if going to a play in Elizabethan England was more like attending a football match than a Broadway show—or playing in one?” It describes “participatory entertainment expected by the actors and the audience during the careers of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. West finds surprising descriptions of these theatrical experiences in the figurative language of early modern players and playgoers—including understanding, confusion, occupation, eating, and fighting. Such words and ways of speaking are still in use today, but their earlier meanings, like that of theater itself, are subtly, importantly different from our own. Playing was not confined to the actors on the stage but filled the playhouse, embracing audiences and performers in collaborative experiences that did not belong to any one alone but to the assembled, various crowd… Thrown apples, smashed bottles of beer, and lumbering bears—these and more gave verbal shape to the physical interactions between players and playgoers, creating circuits of exchange, production, and consumption.”

On the surface, this description of the book seems to get to the bottom of a significant finding in my study about performance during this period. My discovery is that plays only began to be performed to the public in England in the 1580s, and the public did not like this new form of entertainment as they preferred watching bears, dog-fights and other rowdy spectacles that had been popular with the masses prior to this point. The over-10,000-playgowers claims by “Nashe” and others were obvious absurd exaggerations, but these have been taken as facts of the popularity of “Shakespearean” play-watching during these decades. I requested this book because I hoped it would elaborate on the details of apples being thrown, and other interruptions and interactions with the audience. However, instead of focusing on these facts, nearly all of this book is a series of nonsensical digressions about the concepts of collaboration and the figurative-double-speak of what stated descriptions can actually be describing. This nonsensical structure is stressed in the chapter titles that are called “Understanders”, “Confusion”, and “Supposes”. At least there is also the simple title “Eating”; I recently reviewed a book that was just about the practice of eating in the opera during the Renaissance in Italy, so this is a field that that has been more previous research than in some of these other elements. However, even this seemingly straightforward topic of “Eating” has been made confusing in its opening paragraph, as the author digresses in the step of “reasoning” being interjected before the act of “eating”. Instead of just describing who ate what at plays, the author concludes the opening introductory paragraph by referring to eating as a “magic” trick of the “players” (183). Then, the next paragraph claims that “eating and drinking” was linked to “imagination” but not “coherently”. The point seems to be to confuse and repel readers from continuing to read any further in this chapter, as they are told they will not actually find anything relevant to the chapter-title inside. There are only occasional quotes from actual documents that record something relevant about eating in this period, like the line from “Paul Hentzner, a German jurist who visited England in the 1580s” and wrote “that ‘various fruits for sale are carried around in the theaters, such as apples, pears, and nuts, and depending on the season, even wine and beer’” (187). This is an important bit of evidence for my own research because I have found that many Renaissance plays were designed to sell goods such as fish, fruits, nuts and the like as they are advertised, puffed and romanticized in the dialogue; if these items were being sold during performances by those affiliated with the theaters, this in-text ad-placements would have had a direct positive impact on profits. However, the rarity of similar useful pieces of evidence across this book make it impractical for me to use it to hunt for bits to help further my research. I would find such evidence more speedily if I just searched the archives for plays that mention “fruits” and the other key-terms in this passage.

Anybody who attempts to read this book page-by-page will find that it is hostile to such attempts, and this makes it a very bad book for scholars who are seeking to find sense and evidence in the books they consume to further their research. The percentage of digressions on most of this book’s pages make it uniquely annoying to browse in this regard. 

The Fiscal Biography of Botticelli’s Workshop

Ana Debenedetti, Botticelli: Artist and Designer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, November 30, 2021). Hardcover Cloth: $22.50. 262pp, 5.5X8.5”. 73 color plates, 1 halftone. ISBN: 978-1-78914-438-3.


“…Reexamines the life and work of Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli through a novel lens: his business acumen. Focusing on the organization of Botticelli’s workshop and the commercial strategies he devised to make his way in Florence’s very competitive art market,” reviewing “the remarkable career and output of this pivotal artist within the wider context of Florentine society and culture. Uniquely, Debenedetti evaluates Botticelli’s celebrated works, like The Birth of Venus, alongside less familiar forms such as tapestry and embroidery, showing the breadth of the artist’s oeuvre and his talent as a designer across media.”

The unique perspective of considering Botticelli’s output as a professional artist in terms of the fiscal side of this business is indeed one that has not been explored before, and is thus a deserving reason for a new book about Botticelli. The first chapter also opens in a curious way, or with a description of the ordinary people that filled Florence in the 1460s. My study of the Renaissance concluded that Italy and especially Florence had preserved high-arts such as painting across the Dark Ages or after Greco-Roman times because the Italian states had unique power in the world due to Rome being the center of the Christian world. Some of the earliest printed books appeared in Italy during Botticelli’s lifetime, and there were many links between the fine artists of this period and illustration and design of these early books. Thus, understanding the culture and society that made these advances in human knowledge and arts possible is important for establishing the roots that are more frequently mis-attributed in our modern times as stemming in Britain (where they actually developed a century later). A biography then orients general, non-specialist readers in Botticelli’s family. There are of course problems with attempting to describe this early period, and the biggest of these is the relative absence of documentary records to substantiate later biographical claims. As with most biographies about great people from these decades, this book also begins by explaining: “We know very little about Botticelli’s life” before proceeding to explain what is seemingly known in the rest of the book. In this case, Debenedetti explains that the first biography of Botticelli was included as a minor mention in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters… published in 1550, or “forty years after” Botticelli’s “death”. Debenedetti is unique in accepting that this detachment in years makes this biography “not entirely reliable”, as most biographers accept all such late claims as facts before adding imaginative fictions of their own over them (9). The undated short “anonymous codex” also survives that is undated, but has been “dated, by consensus, to the late 1530s and early 1540s” (10). When I have tested these types of undated documents claimed to have been created long before the first printed versions that restate similar ideas, I have found that they really belong in the same time period, and scholars have been too eager to establish much earlier histories of literacy and writing in their countries, so the earliest likely dates have been preferred in dating these manuscripts. Debenedetti handles all of these problems with authenticity and documentary support very carefully, so I recommend scholars to explore this book if they want an accurate representation of what is and is not known about Botticelli. For example, Debenedetti then distinguishes between goldbeaters and goldsmiths as she begins explaining the distinctions in the craft professions of that day that are foreign for modern readers (14). And all this heavily-cited research is presented before the first beautiful color painting of Botticelli’s Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder (1474-5) showcases his brilliant skills in the art that he is best known for. The reproductions of paintings across this book are of the highest possible resolution and quality. The colors are vibrant, the images have been properly contrasted and otherwise beautifully edited and presented. A couple of images that stood out are comparisons of Botticelli’s version of Venere pudica and the version of this piece attributed to “Botticelli and Workshop”; the two are very similar, but the latter is more detailed and less romantic (160). And across from it is a comparison of yet another version of “Botticelli’s workshop’s” version of this piece, contrasted with a similarly positioned and draped version credited to “Lorenzo di Credi” (161). From my perspective all four of these attempts are likely to have been created by a single Workshop of collaborating painters, as opposed to some being the work primarily of individuals, while others being entirely collaborative; I doubt any degree of forensic analysis could distinguish the quantity of multi-handed brushwork vs a single brushstroke style in these images; but the bylines attributed for these pieces state that the established attributions are not overturned in this book. The “Chronology” at the back of the book will help historians to orient themselves in the explanations of major historical and biographical events around Botticelli’s life.

This is a wonderful and delightful book, and I only wish that it was bigger and had a giant painting on its cover, so I could display it in my house. If anybody wants to read about the business of art at the center of the Renaissance, this is a great choice for them. It should work both as a casual read for an art enthusiast, as well as for an artist who is contemplating their own career in art, and also for scholars who are on the skeptical side of biographic research.  

Digressive Ponderings About the Pointlessness of Scholarship and Erasmus

William Barker, Erasmus of Rotterdam: The Spirit of a Scholar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, December 7, 2021). Hardcover Cloth: $22.50. 312pp. 30 color plates, 19 halftones. ISBN: 978-1-78914-451-2.


“The first English-language popular biography of widely influential northern Renaissance scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam in twenty years. Erasmus of Rotterdam came from an obscure background but, through remarkable perseverance, skill, and independent vision, became a powerful and controversial intellectual figure in Europe in the early sixteenth century. He was known for his vigorous opposition to war, intolerance, and hypocrisy, and at the same time for irony and subtlety that could confuse his friends as well as his opponents. His ideas about language, society, scholarship, and religion influenced the rise of the Reformation and had a huge impact on the humanities, and that influence continues today. This book shows how an independent textual scholar was able, by the power of the printing press and his wits, to attain both fame and notoriety.”

The introductory paragraph that opens this book begins to argue that this book is very different from the biography of Botticelli from the same publisher that I just reviewed before it. It begins with an imaginary walk of this scholar through somewhere, and a detailed description of his appearance that can only stem in the surviving paintings of him included in this book. These imagined details are troubling because the are note accompanied by citations of the sources that might support their accuracy. They suggest that the author is going to be equating what he imagines Erasmus’ life was like with a biography that is supposed to relate the known facts of this life (7). The next paragraph is even stranger as it questions why Erasmus placed becoming a “humanist scholar” as an ideal goal of human achievement, given that “such an ideal might strike most people today as a bit odd” (7-8). What strikes me as odd is that this author, William Parker, is confessing to being anti-intellectual in these lines, and he accompanies this assertion with the flighty and non-factual content of the surrounding lines. This type of imaginative scholarship then leads to the many assumptions without grounding research in the following paragraph where a digression into “famous people” leads to broad generalizations about the creation of a “professional elite” of intellectuals or the “educated class” that developed during these decades, who worked as “doctors, lawyers, priests and administrators” (8). In my own study of this period I found that most of these professionals just purchased degrees and authorial credits from ghostwriters without engaging in the pursuit of knowledge themselves. Thus, this discussion really has to be grounded in evidence to support this idea that Erasmus was one among an army of scholars, in contrast with the idea that there were only a handful of true scholars in each European country. The “fame” of any byline was also more dependent on its possessor being rich enough to sponsor pufferies to be written about him, as opposed to the quality of the scholarship, so this section on fame really could have explored much deeper and more revealing lines of inquiry. These problems repeat across this book with paragraphs that start with broad and nonsensical assumptions such as, “Erasmus often told his readers that we know a writer best through the writer’s own works” (15); why did Parker choose this claim instead of quoting the words in question themselves since they could not have been much longer than this summary of them? Other uncritical ponderings include: “Despite the intense emotions, we cannot conclude from these letters to Servatius anything regarding the physical desires of the young Erasmus”. The preceding paragraph describes that Erasmus “lived in this homosocial world” (39). The point here is to make a philosophical argument against Erasmus potential homosexuality, instead of even quoting a significant portion of these letters that might prove the opposite of this assertion. It seems that Parker’s goal was to write as much as possible about as little as possible of any coherent meaning. For example: “All this attention and fame evoked new perspectives in the way Erasmus could be seen. Until this point in his life much of what we know about Erasmus comes from Erasmus himself.” This paragraph should have started simply by stating that this section is going to describe contemporary commentary about Erasmus with a summary of who was writing about him and generally what was being said. Instead, this digressive set of sentences say nonsensically stuff about fame, perspective, and restate to obvious distinction between autobiography and biography (145).

The most positive part about this book are the illustrations or the drawings of Erasmus, scans of his handwritten texts, and other visuals that help to establish some background for this scholar and scholarship during his lifetime. This book could have been much-improved if most of the text was deleted, and just the images remained with short explanations of what is depicted in these images and what they signify.

Un-Authorized Construction as a Tool for Upward Mobility or Freedom

Paul Dobraszczyk, Architecture and Anarchism (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021). Softcover. 248pp. Color and B&W photographs. ISBN: 978-1-91364-517-5.


Architecture and Anarchism documents and illustrates 60 projects, past and present, that key into a libertarian ethos and desire for diverse self-organised ways of building. They are what this book calls an ‘anarchist’ architecture, that is, forms of design and building that embrace the core values of traditional anarchist political theory since its divergence from the mainstream of socialist politics in the 19th century. These are autonomy, voluntary association, mutual aid, and self-organisation through direct democracy. As the book shows, there are a vast range of architectural projects that can been seen to reflect some or all of these values, whether they are acknowledged as specifically anarchist or otherwise. Anarchist values are evident in projects that grow out of romantic notions of escape—from isolated cabins to intentional communities. Yet, in contrast, they also manifest in direct action—occupations or protests that produce micro-countercommunities. Artists also produce anarchist architecture—intimations of much freer forms of building cut loose from the demands of moneyed clients; so do architects and planners who want to involve users in a process normally restricted to an elite few. Others also imagine new social realities through speculative proposals. Finally, building without authority is, for some, a necessity—the thousands of migrants denied their right to become citizens, even as they have to live somewhere; or the unhoused of otherwise affluent cities forced to build improvised homes for themselves. The result is to significantly broaden existing ideas about what might constitute anarchism in architecture and also to argue strongly for its nurturing in the built environment. Understood in this way, anarchism offers a powerful way of reconceptualising architecture as an emancipatory, inclusive, ecological and egalitarian practice.”

Too many books about architecture and other arts that touch on anarchism, the modern, or communal projects swerve into vague abstractions that are designed to showcase the authors’ capacity for double-speak instead of facing the realities of these movements and ideas. This book does not fall into this category of hyper-theory, but instead is a unique look at the various culturally-relevant forms of un-authorized construction. This idea strikes me personally at the moment because a windstorm disrupted some of the shingles on my “tiny” (427 sq ft) manufactured house this past Friday; this weather system appears to have turned into the line of tornadoes that hit the next few states through Kentucky on that day, December 10, 2021. After a bit of looking I found a contractor willing to adjust the roof, skirting, and probably take out the ventilation fan on the roof that caused the little vortex that disrupted the shingles. It is difficult to find contractors in Quanah because most of the few houses here are run-down. If I had not found a contractor; I would have had to climb unto the roof to fix it myself. My previous self-fixes included putting rocks between skirting to stop it from flapping in the wind. While the self-improvements I’ve made when without access to a contractor are only tiny bits of chaos, it is easy enough for me to imagine ideas I might come up with if I faced larger challenges. I have lived in my car for around a year before. If I had come up with an innovative cheap building solution back then, I might have been able to remain in Los Angeles, instead of starting my PhD program in literature. Practical and unauthorized building solutions are increasingly relevant to a growing number of people, including all of those who were just unhoused in this tornado string on December 10. If they could take the loose wood, concrete and other bits and repurpose them without zoning regulations; they might be able to recreate at least temporary houses for themselves in weeks instead of the years it might take for insurance to come in, new construction to be built. And to find this piece of land where I have built my tiny house, I had to query every city in Texas and North Carolina for land where a tiny house could be built that was cheap (not subject to rival bidding) and included access to city utilities (water, sewage, garbage) as most cheap land is too far from cities or requires extra fees for installing special equipment to hook up raw land to utilities (mine cost a few hundred dollars, but others asked for thousands just for this). The biggest obstacle was zoning requirements against houses under around 850 sq ft. I have only heard of one city in California lifting size requirements after it was hit with a major fire that destroyed most of its houses. Tiny/ manufactured houses are not exactly durable against these disasters, but losing a tiny house is a much smaller hit on the wallet, and thus a good option for speedy recovery after any disaster (though it’s probably a good idea to build these in less wind-prone regions than Quanah, or less fire-prone regions than CA etc.). In this context, anarchism or the absence of authority in shelter-building is a solution to housing that is better than leaving half-a-million people unhoused in the US. In contrast, I recall hearing news about authorized tiny-house shelters costing around $500,000 per tiny house in a Los Angeles homeless-sheltering project. The city paid this absurd sum for a single tiny-house and could only build around a dozen of these because of their own permit fees, land prices and other elements that they had control over; they could have instead spent that $5 million to buy a piece of cheap land further from the city and to put 116 small manufactured homes there, with near-zero upkeep cost vs. the millions their tiny-houses ended up costing to maintain in LA-center. There are unique rules for each unique housing problem, and these rules can be changed at the government-level (thus making new authorizing policies), or people can be left alone to build what works for them (without regard for the opinions of the “Authority” or the erroneous rules).

The rationality of this book’s approach is apparent from the easy-to-understand chapter-titles that refer to “Liberty”, “Escape”, “Necessity”, “Protest”, “Ecology”, “Art”, “Speculation”, and “Participation”. The “Preface” also explains that one motivation for this particular book at this time is the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on things like the unauthorized staging of a ballet that was stopped by police. In parallel, the Hackney Council issued a notice against an “art installation”. The illustration used for this example hits home with my current situation because it is of a giant shark sculpture that is diving into the broken roof with dislodged shingles of an ordinary house; stopping the installation of this and other sharks like it was part of a separate problem from the ballet (7). This story is included in this preface because it was affiliated with the Antepavilion project that also commissioned the creation of this particular book (8).

There are great examples across this book that are supported with both clear theoretical reasoning and practical or fiscal information relevant for each unique project and project-type. The “Allotment structures at Green Lane, Stockport” use allotment or common spaces held by cities to create structures “outside of the market” that include “readymade or self-built sheds and greenhouses” without changing the builders for the land, or restricting them to having to build larger houses or the like to fit zoning laws (18-9). There are also some major or “famous” chaotic architectural achievements featured such as the “Façade of the Hundertwasser-haus along Kegelgasse, Vienna” that includes multi-colored artwork, mosaics, and strange shapes on the side of a large housing structure (32-3).

When I first arrived in Quanah, I was surprised by some of the more dilapidated structures in this city where people actually still live. While I was running for Mayor of Quanah (I did not win), I visited most of the houses across the city, and one had half of its roof collapsed and yet a woman was still living inside of it. This seemed shocking until I started experiencing Quanah’s standard windstorms, and the various small problems that creep up with house ownership that don’t really need to be fixed if a city has liberal ordinances about upkeep. “A repurposed shepherd’s hut in Nokken, April 2019” (60) seems dangerously disintegrated to most outsiders, but it is probably a very comfortable and self-sufficient dwelling space. And the section on “Ecology” is also a great argument that is well made; my electricity bill for the last month of November was around $60 vs. the average bill being $131 in the state of Texas according to This is because, as the Dallas Business Journal reports, “The average Dallas home, for example, is 1,862 square feet.” Small structures cost less to heat and cool, and these lower costs also mean benefits for the environment. I certainly hope that I am not contributing to make tornados around here still more powerful via global-heating. The “Earthship near Brighton” (144) and other ecologically-friendly designs in this book thus are not just silly-looking structures, but are where all rational designers should be heading (even if they have to figure out a way from these elements to look a bit less silly).

There are a few projects in this book that are more controversial and do not resonate with me. I am especially disturbed by “Baby-doll house, Heidelberg Project, destroyed by arson in 2014” (179); this and other similar houses in this section are decorated with stuffed toys on the exterior. I do not object to the artistic value of these commercial-toy-objects, but rather to the wastefulness of using toys on the exterior, where they are exposed to the elements and slowly rut; they already look grotesque, and, in a decade, they will just be tatters. The house already looked horrific after it burned, and adding garbage-toys to it probably still further lowers house-values for the neighbors, and makes the neighbors feel like they living next to a garbage-disposal-site. There are also projects that probably explore their users instead of helping them; one example is “One of the most unusual student rooms built as part of the Bauhausle from 1980-88” (219), which is a half-wheel-glass structure that seems to expose these poor students in their nudity to the outdoors while housing them in a few square-feet of living space.

This book does not propagandize for all of these ventures, but rather shows these various attempts at anarchy with a multi-dimensional perspective. This openness and curiosity about experimentation is needed in our modern scholarly world. Thus, libraries of various sizes should have a copy of this book, as there are all sorts of independent builders, artists, as well as construction corporations that can benefit from doing a bit of research in its pages before deciding with what degree of chaos they are comfortable with.  

The Mysterious Rivalry Between an 18th Century Publisher and His Ungrateful Famous Author

Pat Rogers, The Poet and the Publisher: The Case of Alexander Pope, Esq., of Twickenham versus Edmund Curll, Bookseller in Grub Street (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2021). Hardcover. 470pp. Illustrations. ISBN: 978-1-78914-416-1.


“The quarrel between the poet Alexander Pope and the publisher Edmund Curll has long been a notorious episode in the history of the book, when two remarkable figures with a gift for comedy and an immoderate dislike of each other clashed publicly and without restraint. However, it has never, until now, been chronicled in full. Ripe with the sights and smells of Hanoverian London,” it “details their vitriolic exchanges, drawing on previously unearthed pamphlets, newspaper articles, and advertisements, court and government records, and personal letters. The story of their battles in and out of print includes a poisoning, the pillory, numerous instances of fraud, and a landmark case in the history of copyright. The book is a forensic account of events both momentous and farcical, and it is indecently entertaining.”

I requested this book because my computational-linguistic study of the 18th century discovered that Edmund Curll was one of the collaborative ghostwriters that were behind a few texts that did not have his byline on them. As part of my book, I reviewed Paul Baines and Pat Rogers’ Edmund Curll, Bookseller (2007); it covered much of this conflict with Pope as well as other publishing adventures that Curll undertook, and helped me find evidence for my own conclusions. Based on this analysis, Alexander Pope appears to have collaborated together with Curll (unless their ghostwriters were collaborating under their names). If my far more detailed study of the British Renaissance is correct, the conflict between Curll and Pope described in the press is likely to have been mostly a publicity stunt, unless any of the poisonings, executions and the like were fatal. There was definitely fraud going on between the two of them, but it was far broader than any individual case of copyright infringement or isolated fraud.

The “Preface” of this book does a great job of introducing the significance of this publishing clash between Curll and Pope, with the first being the working-class-publisher/author and the later being the “famous” author with power to influence Curll’s fate in court and in the press. It also points to the fact that the anonymity of the deliver of Pope’s letters that led to the copyright dispute over them was likely to be due to Pope hiring this deliver himself to create a reason to sue Curll. My own analysis concluded that Curll threatened outing Pope’s part as a ghostwriter for the collaborative, a threat that culminated in Pope winning a lawsuit against Curll in court. The details of this book should provide additional evidence for my hypothesis as Rogers has clearly done a close review of the documentary evidence; I will read this book closely when I return to writing my 18th century study after I finish the second half (another 14 volumes or so) of my Renaissance Re-Attribution series.

All pages of this book that I browsed through are supported with evidence and are described with the necessary historical precision. For example the question of Pope being a Jacobite/Catholic is explained in terms of his affiliations, relevant trials, and the reasons why Pope would not have dared to confess directly he was a Jacobite even if he obviously was one (53). Documentary evidence are elegantly presented, including preserving the font in court documents (100-1). It is relatively rare for any books of this type to transcribe entire Exhibits in a court case as is the case in many places across this book (144-5); these original documents are essential for researchers like me who might see very different words or sentences as far more significant for proving unique theories I might be contemplating. The legible transcription of most relevant legal documents for any 18th century author is very rare; the versions that are available in the original books/archival documents where these appeared are difficult to even read without transcription, and are even more so without the context for them provided in this book. And these Exhibits are explained with direct commentary that explain the strange errors that are actually clues such as: “Nor had the disputes surrounding The Non-Juror been forgotten, when they still could make money.” Then, the details of the case are described before the conclusion: “This could all be a hoax, although if that is the case the parodist took off Curll pretty neatly” (194).

This is a flawless retelling of the complex legal problems of an 18th century British author-publisher who clearly was far more significant to the intellectual output of this century than scholars have previously considered. I look forward to dissecting the evidence more closely, and this is the highest praise I can offer for any scholarly book. Anybody who reads over this summary and is curious to learn more should also benefit from exploring its contents.

Death Penalties After/Before and for Winning/Losing Games?

Wray Vamplew, Games People Played: A Global History of Sport (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, October 26, 2021). Hardcover Cloth: $27.50. 456pp, 6X9”. 98 halftones. ISBN: 978-1-78914-457-4.


“The first global history of sport… shows how sport has been practiced, experienced and made meaningful by players and fans throughout history. It assesses how sports developed and diffused across the globe, as well as many other aspects, from emotion, discrimination and conviviality; politics, nationalism and protest; and how economics has turned sport into a huge consumer industry. It shows how sport is sociable and health-giving, and also contributes to charity, however it also examines its dark side: its impact on the environment, the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and match fixing. Published during Summer Olympic year,” (the Tokyo Olympics were delayed by a year from 2020 to 2021, so I don’t know if this book was also delayed by a year just to come out closer to the Olympics in 2021) “covering everything from curling to baseball, boxing to motor racing, this book will appeal to anyone who plays, watches and enjoys sport, and wants to know more of its history and global impact.”

The table of contents divides this book logically into subjects given the broad range of sub-topics this single book attempts to cover. The history of sport across the ages is summarized in three chapters. Different types of sports are then explained in chapters of their own (like killing vs. fighting vs. horses vs. speed-competitions). Some of the sections less clearly belong in this book; for example “social and cultural aspects” addresses non-substantial topics such as “mind and body” and sociability of sports; both of these concepts are really modern complications, and do not really explain the philosophical significance of sports in earlier ages. The chapters on the politics of sport focus on still narrower questions like nationalism and propaganda. And the “Business” section describes players being paid as one topic, and certainly this is not something that needs to be examined, as all players including the enslaved gladiators were paid in something even if it was a chance for freedom, or food. And the “Public Image” section starts with “Charity” by these players, a publicity-trick that hardly deserves a chapter of its own in the history of sports. I had assumed this book will include a close archival study of the earliest sports and how they changed through history. But instead, this is yet another set of digressions on topics covered in the popular media related to sports. This book is thus designed for a casual reader who is captivated by these pop-news-stories and wants to keep reading them, and not researchers who really hoped to actually find a true history of what exactly happened in the enormously complex web of stories of how sports developed across the world.

One positive element is the design of this book that includes historical illustrations, as well as boxes around summaries and special stories to invite casual readers into the narrative. However, signs that something is wrong with this book reappear in the opening line of the first chapter, “Sports history is all around us, although sometimes we do not recognize it as such” (12). I have noticed that writers that start with these types of empty sentences are trying to hit a word or page-count for a book and just need to keep adding something, so they choose to just babble on about nothing. Vamplew then lists random street names related to sports and the like that make this paragraph seem detailed when it is really full of hot air. Yet another clue of this is the start of the section called “Away from Europe”: “Much Western scholarship relating to sport in the ancient world has focused on Europe and the Near East, but as far as we can surmise, games were played everywhere.” What? This needed to be stated? What rational human does not know humans play everywhere? Monkeys play everywhere. Parrots play everywhere. But maybe humans somewhere just start life in scholarly reading and never attempt running, tossing a ball, a play-fighting? In the second paragraph, he finally points to a fact or that “rubber” “balls” were found in central Mexico that indicate they were played in this region starting in 1500-1200 BCE. But instead of explaining the details of these games, Vamplew dives into wild assumptions without quoting these controversial sources he is referring to: “Mayan accounts describe death penalties carried out immediately after the games, sometimes for the captain of the losing side, sometimes for the entire losing squad, sometimes for the captain of the winning side, and on rare occasions for the entire winning team. Sacrifice was important in all religions of Mesoamerica.” The second sentence is blatantly biased and makes the lack of quotes or evidence in the previous sentence seem especially untruthful (49). The sources Vamplew might be thinking of can be racist accounts by European colonizers of these native people “barbaric” human sacrifice, and might have nothing to do with any actual documented sources from the Mayans themselves. It is also extremely unlikely there was such detailed accounts of specifically who was killed after a game, but Vamplew could not just quote this fantastically-detailed passage. And I doubt there was a different story for every possible outcome of a game related to sacrifice.

This is one of those incredibly annoying books where the author makes up most of the history out of his own imagination, and just assumes readers will believe him.

The Origins of Catholic Propaganda

Margaret Meserve, Papal Bull: Print, Politics, and Propaganda in Renaissance Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, August 3, 2021). Hardcover: $59.95. 456pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-1-4214-4044-6.


“How did Europe’s oldest political institution come to grips with the disruptive new technology of print? Printing thrived after it came to Rome in the 1460s. Renaissance scholars, poets, and pilgrims in the Eternal City formed a ready market for mass-produced books. But Rome was also a capital city—seat of the Renaissance papacy, home to its bureaucracy, and a hub of international diplomacy—and print played a role in these circles, too.” It “uncovers a critical new dimension of the history of early Italian printing by revealing how the Renaissance popes wielded print as a political tool. Over half a century of war and controversy—from approximately 1470 to 1520—the papacy and its agents deployed printed texts to potent effect, excommunicating enemies, pursuing diplomatic alliances, condemning heretics, publishing indulgences, promoting new traditions, and luring pilgrims and their money to the papal city. Early modern historians have long stressed the innovative press campaigns of the Protestant Reformers, but Meserve shows that the popes were even earlier adopters of the new technology, deploying mass communication many decades before Luther. The papacy astutely exploited the new medium to broadcast ancient claims to authority and underscore the centrality of Rome to Catholic Christendom.” It “reveals how the Renaissance popes used print to project an authoritarian vision of their institution and their capital city, even as critics launched blistering attacks in print that foreshadowed the media wars of the coming Reformation. Papal publishing campaigns tested longstanding principles of canon law promulgation, developed new visual and graphic vocabularies, and prompted some of Europe’s first printed pamphlet wars.”

This book interested me because my computational-linguistic study of the British Renaissance explained that Richard Verstegan ghostwrote on both sides of the Catholic versus Church of England debate; he was sponsored with a pension directly by the Pope and Spain after he was exiled from England for publishing one of his pro-Catholic pamphlets. But while Verstegan was in exile and under pension for the Catholic side, he also kept ghostwriting texts against the evils of Catholicism for British bylines (including Church of England leaders). Verstegan established a major exile Catholic publishing industry across his career, while continuing to work in secret for both sides. This book explains what happened in the Catholic publishing world across the previous century before this rise of publishing in England. The funding Verstegan found from Catholics for writing/publishing propaganda for them was clearly not a new concept for them, as they had obviously sponsored various types of Catholic materials to be published under-contract for them from the first outputs of the printing-press through a century later when they started seeing opposition in print from Luther/Church of England and other Catholic rivals in favor of different reforms. Thus, what happened in the decades when the Church still maintained power over publishing that favored them alone is uniquely important for all humans to understand the roots of the current relationship between religion and print.

The “Introduction” opens with a curiously detailed and specific account of a letter describing an early printing of the Bible and how miraculous it seemed back in 1455 (1). One of the earliest cases of how print was immediately taken up by rivals in the church and politics who must have hired ghostwriters to argue each of their cases is from the 1459 pamphlets propagating for two rivals for archbishop of Mainz seat (5). Meserve explains that “many histories of early printing” abandon detailing what happened in Rome after around 1475, shifting instead to the beautiful type made in Venice, and other innovations in Florence. But, I absolutely agree that the propagandistic wars that raged across these decades in Rome shaped European politics and finance, and thus are far more significant for the history of human knowledge and print than artistic fineries (7). The use of terms such as “Julian publicity campaigns” and other concepts that make sense to modern readers and accurately explain the complexities of these publishing battles throughout guide readers (336). As I glimpsed across the book, I did not find any assumptions or fictions about what might have happened. Everything is specifically supported with evidence, such as Sanudo’s diary entries, or a “summons to a council” (302). Many paragraphs explain patterns that should prove fruitful for researchers if they choose to explore them further, like the note that some “orations were printed with short paratexts  by the orator or by some friend or associate”; these puffing remarks from “friends” and “associates” were deliberate propagandistic devices designed to make it seem as if many honored people agreed with or honored a given person being puffed; it is likely that the main text and all these pufferies were written by a single ghostwriter (278). The precise and fact-laden style of this book allows for researchers to find details that might be entirely insignificant even to Meserve herself, but which could be the groundwork for an entirely new article on a related topic.

This is exactly the book I hoped to add to my library, and I am delighted I asked for it from the publisher. All Catholics should really read it to understand the foundations of their religion, or how the earliest Christian Bibles and their interpretations were published, distributed, argued about, and turned into political tools in power-struggles between the clergy. It is also essential-reading for scholars of most early European literatures, as these papal clashes reverberated in echoes, plagiarisms, and mimicries across the texts published across this content over at least the following century, and very much also into the present day.

Unreadable Babbling About People Doing and Not-Doing Stuff

Journey Herbeck, The Front (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2021). Softcover: $19.95. 184pp. ISBN: 978-1-4962-2599-3.


“For one family living on the very western edge of the Great Plains, life runs parallel to the forces that had always endangered its existence. There was a price to obtain this parallel life, of course, but the family had paid it and for once found a way to survive. They had a little water. They had a little food. They had a little work. They were fine—until they weren’t. Taking place in the span of twenty-four hours, The Front follows a man and his nine-year-old niece as they try to escape the apocalyptic circumstances that have come to their home. Traveling north through outbreaking war, the pair navigate the disintegrating balance between rival powers. As new lines are drawn, the neutral spot their family had come to occupy is no longer recognized by either side, and the only chance for safety is to try to cross the Northern Line. Journey Herbeck… teaches high school science in Montana.”

The first thing I noticed was that the chapter numbers start with 0 and are placed at the start of each first paragraph. This made me think for a few moments if the first line was, “O, The reservoir was low…” Then, I checked the start of the second chapter and recognized O was a 0. If this was an absurdist or a post-modern novel, this type of thing might make sense, but the summary introduces it as straightforward literary fiction.

The rest of the first paragraph is also confusing in its ending, as the niece shields “her eyes from the sun, which was already blocked by the shelter” (1). If it was already blocked, was she jut pretending it was too bright for fun? The next paragraph starts with a long-dash that indicates a line of dialogue. The end of dialogue before “, she said” is not marked with a dash, so it is likely to be confusing for readers across this book, who might not know where some dialogue begins and ends. Without any background or general information about what is going on, they then start dressing, undressing, and chatting about it. The rest of the book is bad for a myriad of different reasons. Like two lines of dialogue to settle the “mom” left that “morning” (31). And the long non-dialogue about hearing or not-hearing trucks (97). When there are long descriptions mostly at the start of new chapters, it is not clear what they are trying to describe as “heads of the bison” and some kind of “steel structures” and “vehicles” are “bouncing” before they stop and have to “wait for what would happen” (125).

This book is not designed to be read, as attempting to read it presents multiple unsurmountable challenges to comprehension. It is also not the enjoyable sort of confusion, but the sort that leaves you deeply frustrated.

The Pre-Union Economic History of Wales

Matthew Frank Stevens, The Economy of Medieval Wales, 1067-1536 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2019). Softcover. 164pp. ISBN: 978-1-78683-484-3.


“This book surveys the economy of Wales from the first Norman intrusions of 1067 to the Act of Union of England and Wales in 1536. Key themes include the evolution of the agrarian economy; the foundation and growth of towns; the adoption of a money economy; English colonisation and economic exploitation; the collapse of Welsh social structures and rise of economic individualism; the disastrous effect of the Glyndŵr rebellion; and, ultimately, the alignment of the Welsh economy to the English economy. Comprising four chapters, a narrative history is presented of the economic history of Wales, 1067-1536, and the final chapter tests the applicability in a Welsh context of the main theoretical frameworks that have been developed to explain long-term economic and social change in medieval Britain and Europe.”

These last three books from the University of Wales Press address the history of Wales. This particular title focuses on the centuries before its unification with England. I requested this set of books especially after my research into the British Renaissance uncovered that there was a vibrant writing and publishing culture in Wales that included several unique literary voices that I have never read about in my decades of study of British literature. Wales appears to have had public theatrical performances before these were first brought to the public in England. England thus appears to have suppressed or ignored the significance of these earlier achievements of one of the members of their united kingdoms in its propaganda of the greatness of the London-centric Renaissance history. London and other English cities were also far smaller and less financially powerful in its pre-colonialism centuries than British history suggests. For all of these reasons and many others, it is a great step forward that the University of Wales is taking this renewed interest in the history of its region.

The “Introduction” opens with the statement that the absence of a “general survey” of Wales, in contrast to the presence of this survey in England, has meant there haven’t been the same type of economic analysis about Wales as about England previously. My research into ghostwriting in England indicates that it is very like at least some of these surveys and records could have been forged by later scholars, or represent a fictional ideal, and not pure factual truth about what happened economically. The grandeur of England’s economy has been used as propaganda to sell its colonialization of countries across the world, so there was more of a motive to exaggerate. Back-dating records in England might have been necessary if literacy was far rarer in both England and Wales than modern readers imagine; this is why Wales (if it did not fabricate any such records) might be the truer representation of the economic state of the British Isles during these centuries. Stevens further explains that there has been little attempt to describe Welsh economics pre-union in histories of Britain.

 The scarcity of documents about this period means that most of the history is a summary of broad social-economic changes, such as times of depression after rebellions, the shift of wealth between invaders and locals, or between the feudal nobility and the moneyed working class. Archeological evidence has also helped fill in gaps about the times of booming architectural design, coin minting, mill construction and other structures that could be dated if bits of them survived. Welsh terminology for political and economic concepts that were unique to this region are closely defined. There is even a section on the Marxist model. This section is part of a chapter that reviews the different theoretical approaches that have been used to understand economic changes in Wales. These ideas are familiar to me since I took Marxist economic courses in college, but they should not be familiar to most casual and even specialist students of history, so it should be a section that should help to ground them in this field. The gaps in documentary knowledge about this early period is one of the reasons Marxist and other theories are needed to understand the class and legal struggles in their broad outlines, even if the details of historical fact, and fiscal transactions have been lost. The question of when capitalism took place of feudalism has also not been firmly established in my own reading of this transition in Renaissance England; the history books seem to be over-estimating the transition date, when it clearly took place later; this section also questions the accuracy of the narrative that England freed its poor before Easter Europe did for its serfs (112-3). Sadly, there are only a couple of pages about the nobles’ patronage of poets, as this is the topic of most interest to me.

This is not an easy book to read, but it is one that has been carefully designed and researched and presents a balanced argument that dives further into Welsh economics than all previous attempts. This book is clearly designed for specialist scholars on this subject, as well as graduate students writing on related topics that need information here that is not available elsewhere. Undergraduate students who attempt to read it would probably be deeply confused by most of it, but this is not a criticism against it.

A Scholarly Questioning of the History of Medieval Wales

David Stephenson, Rethinking the History of Wales: Medieval Wales, c. 1050-1332 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2019). Softcover. 240pp. ISBN: 978-1-78683-386-0.


“After outlining conventional accounts of Wales in the High Middle Ages, this book moves to more radical approaches to its subject. Rather than discussing the emergence of the March of Wales from the usual perspective of the ‘intrusive’ marcher lords, for instance, it is considered from a Welsh standpoint explaining the lure of the March to Welsh princes and its contribution to the fall of the native principality of Wales. Analysis of the achievements of the princes of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries focuses on the paradoxical process by which increasingly sophisticated political structures and a changing political culture supported an autonomous native principality, but also facilitated eventual assimilation of much of Wales into an English ‘empire’. The Edwardian conquest is examined and it is argued that, alongside the resultant hardship and oppression suffered by many, the rising class of Welsh administrators and community leaders who were essential to the governance of Wales enjoyed an age of opportunity. This is a book that introduces the reader to the celebrated and the less well-known men and women who shaped medieval Wales.”

This book is part of the Rethinking the History of Wales Series. If you are reading the above summary from the publisher, you are probably as confused as I am about what is the “March”. The “Introduction” explains that the “half-century” after the “war of 1282-3 is usually depicted as a period in which a conquered Welsh population suffered at the hands of ruthless English royal government and from the tyranny of the English marcher lords”. The territories of these “Marcher lords” are depicted in a couple of the opening maps of Wales. This term is more fully defined in a section called “The Arrival of the Normans and the Creation of the March”. After the Normal conquest of this area, the Normans installed their lords to rule; the lands they held as their “dominion fluctuated”. “By the mid-twelfth century a division of Wales had begun to appear which would be long-lasting, between a pura Wallia marked by native polities in the north and west, and the March (regions of Norman, or what was increasingly described as English, lordship) in the east and the south” (9-10).

Most of this book is taken up in the stories of dramatic invasions, rivalries, military campaigns, rebellions and other violent changes that Wales faced. The descriptions are detailed and heavily cited, while also welcoming casual readers to read for enjoyment. Here is a good example: “In the following decades, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn emerged as a powerful ruler, opportunistically raiding into Dyfed in 1088 and 1093, and sending his war-band on a similar foray in 1096. His power base appears to have been in Ceredigion, but he also appeared in Gwynedd, leading resistance to a Norman invasion in 1094” (39).

There are many unique explanations in this book that are not understood by mainstream culture’s representation of Wales and its unique theological history. For example: “Saints’ cults may thus be classified amongst the elements which on occasion promoted ‘imperial’ tendencies amongst the princes. But this was not the case with all saints’ cults, for they might become associated with local resistance to external control, and they might even act as signs of highly local identities: thus Powys might be identified as ‘Tysilio’s land’, and specific local concentrations of cults” (92). Anybody who is writing about Wales during this period, or is staging a film about it, or otherwise needs to gather pieces of precise and elaborately researched history would benefit from these types of explanations that do not leap to assumptions, but also are not afraid of speculating about the possibilities.

Revealing Archeological Evidence for the Ancient Druids

Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Rethinking the Ancient Druids: New Approaches to Celtic Religion and Mythology (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2021). Softcover: £45. 224pp. ISBN: 978-1-78683-797-4.


“Ancient Classical authors have painted the Druids in a bad light, defining them as a barbaric priesthood, who 2,000 years ago perpetrated savage and blood rites in ancient Britain and Gaul in the name of their gods. Archaeology tells a different and more complicated story of this enigmatic priesthood, a theocracy with immense political and sacred power. This book explores the tangible ‘footprint’ the Druids have left behind: in sacred spaces, art, ritual equipment, images of the gods, strange burial rites and human sacrifice. Their material culture indicates how close was the relationship between Druids and the spirit-world, which evidence suggests they accessed through drug-induced trance.”

I mentioned the anti-propaganda the English appear to have launched against rival religions to Christianity within and around their borders in my review in the past issue of CCR of Vikings, so I had to request this book to have it as a resource in case I perform serious research into this subject in the future. Even in this set of reviews, Vamplew’s Games refers to sacrifices related to gaming by the Mayans in a manner that is clearly based on western mythology and not only any firm grasp of the Mayan religion, or documentary evidence of any potential sacrifices. If there was human sacrifice in the ancient world, it certainly was not unique to these outsider religions like the Druids and Maya, as I saw a film of a tomb uncovered recently in Egypt with several young children that appear to have been killed and buried with their father, the patriarch to accompany him into the afterlife, as there were no signs of illness or other reasons for their premature deaths on their skeletons. Thus, any study that considers the Druids or any other pre-historic culture purely on the surviving archeological record is absolutely needed, as we really cannot trust any past unsupported-by-archeology histories that were written hundreds if not thousands of years after the religious practices they describe for the first time. The most famous historical episode related to the Druids that has been recently adopted in film is Boudica’s collaboration with the Druids in the Holy War against Rome; this episode has a chapter dedicated to it.

The “Prologue” introduces several of the archeological finds discussed throughout including the “Lindow Man… This young man was subjected to sustained, grievous and ultimately fatal assaults, fed a special ‘last supper’, and stripped naked but for a fox-fur armlet and placed face down in a boggy pool in the Cheshire marsh. He died sometime around the mid-first century AD; this date and the location of his body’s deposition may be significant, for it may perhaps allow speculation as to a link with the Boudican rebellion of AD 60… When the Roman governor Suetonius Paulinus decided to destroy the Druidic stronghold on Anglesey, the direct route for his legions coming from south-east England would take his army quite close to the site of where Lindow Man’s body was interred. And might it be that this killing was an aversion sacrifice, orchestrated by the beleaguered Druids in north Wales, in a desperate attempt to engage the spirit world and turn the legions back? One tiny piece of corroborative ‘evidence’ is the presence of a statistically significant amount of mistletoe pollen in Lindow Man’s gut. If Pliny the Elder’s testimony is to be taken at face value, mistletoe growing on Valonia oaks was especially sacred, thought to have magical properties of healing and fertility” (3-4). This might be the longest quote I have inserted yet from any book I have reviewed; this length is a testament to how nothing from it can be taken out without leaving something interesting out. This summary of a case study to establish one of these finds significance also explains the painstaking methodology behind this book, where the author has explored far beyond the established narrative, considering each piece of evidence as if the corpse is still fresh and the police are on the hunt for his killer.

I wish the drawing that accompanies the prologue and other drawings across this book were instead photographs of the artifacts themselves, as I like to study ancient objects to weigh their significance. But drawings were probably used for Figure 24 and others when this “Iron age potin coin minted by the Remi” had not been photographed or the author might have speculated about its appearance based on records. The description of this image is not much help to explain this, and it is referring to a “galloping” woman with “weapons and shields”, whereas Figure 24 looks more like a Buddha-pose sitting-woman; though she might be holding a circle that could be a shield (66). Most of the illustrations are of the originals, and these large images capture the multi-dimensional nature of these distant objects such as “Figure 39 Gold bowl, depicting a hare, deer and moons, from Zurich Altstetten, sixth century BC” (102). I am used to seeing the types of art, pottery and silverware that were made in Europe during the Renaissance and afterwards in museums, but these older objects are strange and make life over a thousand years ago seem not too unlike our own in the present.  

This is just a great book that everybody should read before they watch or make a film about the Druids. Texts like this one should be required in British history (high school and college) courses as entertaining and informative supplements to balance the propaganda narrative of the British Isles that currently dominates the curriculum. But realistically, this book is really meant for archeologists (researchers, professors and practitioners) and for scholars of Welsh history; the complex discussions of what the available pieces of evidence can mean will be most appreciated and understood by such specialists.

The Phoenicians’ Impact on World Culture and History

Carolina Lopez-Ruiz, Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021). Hardcover. 426pp. B&W illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-674-98818-7.


“The first comprehensive history of the cultural impact of the Phoenicians, who knit together the ancient Mediterranean world long before the rise of the Greeks. Imagine you are a traveler sailing to the major cities around the Mediterranean in 750 BC. You would notice a remarkable similarity in the dress, alphabet, consumer goods, and gods from Gibraltar to Tyre. This was not the Greek world—it was the Phoenician. Based in Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and other cities along the coast of present-day Lebanon, the Phoenicians spread out across the Mediterranean building posts, towns, and ports. Propelled by technological advancements of a kind unseen since the Neolithic revolution… The Phoenician imprint on the Mediterranean lasted nearly a thousand years, beginning in the Early Iron Age.” It describes “the eighth and seventh centuries BC. Greeks, Etruscans, Sardinians, Iberians, and others adopted a Levantine-inflected way of life, as they aspired to emulate Near Eastern civilizations. López-Ruiz explores these many inheritances, from sphinxes and hieratic statues to ivories, metalwork, volute capitals, inscriptions, and Ashtart iconography.”

My recent focus on the British Renaissance explains partially why the Phoenicians have been sidelined; the Greek and Latin pre-Renaissance books that were available in Europe were written by Greco-Romans, and so their literature and histories was adopted into European textbook curriculum. In contrast, the evidence in this book is heavily based on archival finds that have demonstrated the growth of various arts aside from writing among the Phoenicians; such artifacts were either inaccessible, or would not have been properly dated or attributed to Phoenicians during these western-history-setting centuries. The “Introduction” does point to the elites among the Phoenicians being “literate” and employing “alphabetic writing”, as well as applying these to “mythological themes and literary models (where preserved)” (3-4). The index reminded me that of course The Epic of Gilgamesh was one of the texts that had been written in the Near East before this point (243). The literature section in the Index points to Greek and other foreign texts that are likely to have been accessible to Phoenician readers, but no major literary creations of their own. One of the only illustrations with writing on it is “Fig. 5.7 Gold tablets with Etruscan and Phoenician inscriptions from Pyrgi. Three gold panels inscribed in Phoenician (left) and Etruscan (center and right) dedicated to Ashtart and Uni at the sanctuary complex in Pyri, late sixth century BC.” Homer’s Iliad is considered to be one of the oldest written western texts and it was created in around 1200 BC, but there are few texts that survive between the peak of Greece (that saw a rivalry in literary achievement) and the post-Phoenician rise of Rome. The Phoenicians’ loss of power to Rome might have contribute to the destruction of any original literature their authors might have written, which probably still influenced the Romans. These fluid influences are noted across the book: “independent Phoenician-Punic influences on both Greek and native Sicilian architecture should not be discounted. When the oikoi temples appear in the Sicel realm, the same layouts were in use in Punic Selinous and perhaps in the Punic phases of other sites on Sicily and beyond, for instance beneath later Roman structures dedicated to Sardus Pater and to Ashtart-Isis/Juno on Sardinia and Malta, respectively” (138).

“A Pattern of Loanwords” is a section that describes “the Northwest Semitic and Greek languages” as “more than a hundred loanwords were attested before the fifth century BC.” This section details echoes between these languages in their roots and other elements. Phoenicia was one of these Semitic civilizations (244-5). “The Phoenicians’… palatial and temple traditions as well as their institutions, preserved since the Bronze Age served as models for the formation of new city-states, such as in Israel, Judah, and the Armeaean and Neo-Hittite states. Phoenician script was adopted by all surrounding groups in the southern Levant, North Syria, and Cilicia, and used as a sign of international prestige” (281).

I am delighted to have added this book to my library. If the topic of the Phoenicians comes up in my research, I know where I will look. This book should be added to most public and academic libraries to make it accessible to a wide range of general readers and specialists. It is written in a dense, and yet not convoluted style that should be accessible to most serious readers.


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